Sunday, January 7, 2018

Houdini Vanishes Elephant 100 Years Ago Today!

Today marks the anniversary of the first mega-illusion in the history of show business. This illusion being the Vanishing Elephant presented by Houdini. The illusion was presented at the Hippodrome Theatre in NYC Jan 7th, 1918. There are some interesting articles about the elephant illusion that appeared in the papers of the time.

The first is the Jan 6th, 1918 issue of the New York Tribune where it states that Houdini will place the elephant into a "giant cylinder shaped container of such dimensions that the largest elephant can enter with ease. It walks through this tube and vanishes." A Vanishing Elephant Tube? On top of this it says Houdini had been working on this illusion for 4 years since his visit to India. What?

Only two days later  a much better description of the effect appears in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 8th, 1918. Here is what that paper printed, "Houdini has a score of stagehands drag out on the stage a big wooden cabinet, having a tube-like interior, seemingly about big enough to the 10,000 lbs elephant. Curtains at the front and doors at the rear are opened to give a clear view through the tube of the back drop, into this tube the elephant marches. the cabinet having been pulled around so that one side faces the audience. The curtains, thrown back, show the cabinet empty. The program says that the elephant vanished into thin air. That explanation is as good as any. The trick is performed 15 feet from the back drop and the cabinet is slightly elevated." So there we have a better description of what that 'tube' was, and a very thorough description of the effect.

As it turns out, despite the claim of 'working on this illusion for 4 years since being inspired by a trip to India', it looks like Houdini was not the originator of the idea. Guy Jarrett first pitched the idea and even created a small mock-up of the illusion for R.H. Burnside of the Hippodrome, which apparently fooled the director greatly. But they never came to terms. Then in comes Houdini who was able to pull it off and thus wins the distinction of being the first performer in history to make such a large object/animal vanish!

I've written about the Vanishing Elephant before, and would love to add a new twist to things, but I'm away from home and not near my library of books to scour through. So instead, I'll leave you with a cute little story that appeared in the Buffalo Enquirer on Jan 14th, 1918. It's from a column called 'Ye Towne Gossip'. and I'll reprint the entire thing below. Please note a small Houdini cartoon at the end of the article.

UPDATE: John Cox over at has a wonderful article on the Vanishing Elephant which fills in many details. Please check it out.

Monday, January 1, 2018

2018 Yankee Gathering XVII News

The New England Magic Collectors Association
Yankee Gathering XVII 
November 15-17, 2018
Doubletree Hotel, Westborough, Massachusetts

It’s January 1, 2018. What better way to welcome the New Year than by making the perfect resolution you will want to keep — to attend The New England Magic Collectors Association’s Yankee Gathering XVII. Mark the dates November 15-17, 2018, on your calendar now.

This unique biennial gathering, again located at the Doubletree Hotel in Westborough, Massachusetts, has been hosted by the New England Magic Collectors Association for over three decades. It offers a full slate of informative and entertaining presentations, performances with historical importance, exhibits featuring memorabilia and artifacts from the luminaries of the past, dealers of books, posters and apparatus, a flea market, and an enjoyable and lively magic auction. Also, this is the opportunity that comes every two years to renew longtime friendships and to make new ones with other magic collectors and historians.

Come and help us pay tribute to Guest of Honor Mike Caveney who, as a performer, historian, author, publisher and lecturer, has delighted and informed lovers of magic for over forty years. And, as one of the magic world’s preeminent collectors, Mike is the current owner of the Egyptian Hall Museum. Egyptian Hall is the oldest private magic museum in America, a true treasure-trove of magic artifacts and memorabilia, and an invaluable resource for researchers. 

Yes, there are still 318 days before Yankee Gathering XVII begins. But, time flies! So, mark your calendar now and make plans to attend. Space is limited to 200 attendees. Registration information will be available in early 2018. For more information, please visit

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Day That Changed The World of Magic

I'd say there were many dates that fit this title, but in the later 20th Century that date must surely be December 26, 1975. This was when Doug Henning's first NBC Special appeared on TV. It was also the night that many new magicians were born, due to Doug's inspiration.

To set the stage, magic was not a prime time event in the 1970s. It's luster had long ago run out. Magic had not totally vanished from television, it was being kept alive by Mark Wilson's wonderful TV shows. But those were not on prime time TV.

Doug Henning had made a big splash on Broadway with his show The Magic Show. It had taken everyone by surprise, and the true magic within the show was Doug. As was stated in the fine book by John Harrison, Spellbound, "Doug couldn't act, couldn't dance and couldn't sing", and yet here he was a bonifide Broadway Star.

It was producer David Suskind's idea to bring Doug to the masses via a network TV special. The first special had a number of unique qualities to it. First, the show would be presented LIVE. Second, Doug would be closing the show with a dangerous escape, the recreation of Harry Houdini's Water Torture Cell. It also had something unique that must have endeared Doug to magician's all over the country, and that was that he opened the show with the world's smallest trick, The Vanishing Nickle.

I still recall seeing this mystery for the first time. There was this odd looking guy, with long hair and a t-shirt, very un-magician looking to me. He began with a nickle on the palm of his hand and closed his fingers around it. Then he turned his wrist to show the back of his hand and then back over to show the closed fingers. When he opened his had the nickle was GONE! He turned his hand around to show the nickle was not on the back of his had and then he closed his fingers again. The next time he opened his had the nickle had returned.  This was all done with the camera very close up. Next he picked up the nickle and tossed it twice into the other hand where it changed to a larger coin, probably a half dollar. Then that half dollar changed into a jumbo coin. The audience burst into applause! That was the start of the new age of magic. 

Much of the magic on that special had been unseen for years, but after that night many routines would be staples of Doug's future performances, such as The Metamorphosis, Things That Go Bump In the Night, and The Sands of Egypt.

The big number of course was the Water Torture Cell, which was going to be done a little differently than Houdini's version. The first change was the cell itself. Doug's Cell had glass on every side. It was also elevated off the stage. In the Houdini version, Houdini made his escape while under cover of a curtain, Doug did the same, but rather than escape, Doug apparently vanished. At the moment when the tension was the highest, as if Doug had failed and maybe was drowning on National TV, a hooded figure with an axe ran in to break the glass. As the curtain was pulled away everyone saw that Doug had vanished from the tank........and then the hooded figure pulled back his hood to reveal he was Doug Henning! A remarkable conclusion to an incredible special.

It turned out to be one of the highest rated magic specials in Television history and made Doug a star over night! And as I mentioned earlier, that night gave birth to many new magicians as well.